Office plants, IoT, and the future of work
The much derided devil’s ivy (epipremnum aureum) is probably not at the forefront of the public discussion about the future of work, but we might as well give the inauspicious pot plant a second look if we want to rethink the way we to work together in the future.
When you think of office plants, you probably think of the succulents your colleagues keep on their desks or the hardy perennials kept alive by the maintenance staff.
You probably don’t think of wellbeing, Internet of Things, or even how plants can become a decisive factor in the future organization of workspaces.
But this might change, now that the very idea of meeting up in the same office space in the same building in the same part of town to sit in front of computer screens has come under scrutiny.
Let’s face it, there were always two reasons why being in the same room while working separately on related projects was deemed a necessity: for one it’s easier to collaborate, and for two it’s easier to be supervised.
Both have taken a hit with the advent of collaboration and productivity platforms, from Slack to Trello to Github, but only one of them will likely survive as an impetus to meet up in person rather than virtually.
And that’s the ability to socialize. For most of us working in an office environment tasked with producing digital artifacts, be it tweets, bulletpoints, or C# code, supervision no longer requires proximity.
Socializing still does, as many managers and employees whose work life has abruptly shifted into work-from-home mode have noticed. And socializing expressly includes negotiations and small-group interactions.
But what does it mean if office life becomes more social? And what does this have to do with epipremnum aureum?
It turns out that devil’s ivy was one of the plants recognized by a 1989 NASA study as being very efficient in removing toxins from the air in confined spaces, in this case xylene, benzene, formaldehyde, and trichlorethylene.
NASA might have human habitation in outer space in mind, but the 300+ publications that cited the original study were preoccupied with more mundane dwellings, mostly on solid ground.
And they largely concluded that plants are good for us. They reduce stress symptoms and improve overall health and productivity.
So now that even big employers like Google and Novartis are shifting to a default work-from-home model, the two questions that come up are: How much designated office space do we still need in the future? And how will it look like?
A very preliminary answer to the first question is “less than before but not zero.” Even those who have gotten a first taste of working from home and appreciated its benefits agree that meeting in person is still a necessity once or twice a week.
The answer to the second question is then that the available space will be used less but more intensively.
And it will only be used if it is unambiguously better than collaborating from the comfort (or discomfort) of one’s living room couch.
Which brings us back to plants — and sensors.
Facility management is not usually a department that receives much strategic attention. But that might change for a bit when companies both adjust to changing work modes and have a closer look at their bottom line.
Real estate companies with the necessary creativity can still thrive in such a situation, and office plants might be the ace up the sleeve — when combined with the right technology.
The timing for such a move is quite fortuitous. Office plants by themselves are a comparatively low-cost item in the office space value chain, but they have significant signaling power — which is why they tend to show up in public-facing common areas.
Both IoT hardware and monitoring software is moving from bespoke implementations to cloud-based off-the-shelf retrofit solutions like Envio Systems and kpibench.
The knowledge about the benefits of indoor greening, lagging the NASA study by a few years, has recently picked up and is additionally boosted by the indoor farming movement which brings in a wealth of knowledge about growth monitoring.
So while the science and technology trajectories for such a technology are all pointing in the right direction, office plants simply didn’t show up high on the agenda of any strategy workshop .
But now that we’re suddenly giving both verifiable air quality and healthy work environments our full attention, epipremnum aureum might finally get its day in the sun.